CBD STORIES | Chris VanDusen - Empire Hemp Co Founder
Founding the business in 2017, Empire Hemp Co’s Founder Chris VanDusen’s relationship with the power of the hemp plant began much earlier in the nineties after facing a battle with cancer. The battering impact of the chemotherapy treatment drove Chris to explore options to aid his recovery journey, eventually leading him to the door of medicinal cannabis.
Discovering the power of Hemp
The toll of intense chemotherapy to treat Hodgkins Lymphoma in 1996 instigated Chris’s exploration into alternative methods to combat its side effects. “During that time California had just legalised medical marijuana for cancer and AIDs patients and I was having a very hard time with the chemotherapy. It relieved the nausea and the terrible feeling I had from the chemicals being pushed through my veins and allowed me to have a level of normalcy in my life. It was like night and day and I could go back to work. Prior to that I would have been on the couch for five days to get over it because it was such a hit to the body.” said Chris. “I knew at that point there was something about this plant that had some serious healing. It was life changing.”
Prior to this, Chris had already been aware of the differences between hemp and marijuana and with the growing research developing in this area in the early nineties “I said to myself if it ever became legal I wanted to get involved in selling it or growing it or something”
The start of Empire Hemp Co.
It wasn’t until 2017 that this could manifest. New York state had legalised hemp and created a pilot programme for the public to become a part of for the 2018 growing season. “I was really interested in it, went to all the meetings and really wanted to be part of it but just wasn’t sure how I was going to do it.”
At the time, Chris and partner Shelley were running a bike shop on Erie Canal in upstate New York.
“Shelley had begun making salves out of herbs we were growing and wild harvesting which were really well received so I thought it would be perfect, if i was able to get a permit, to grow the hemp and put that in the salves.” After a successful application to the state (accepted on his birthday!), Chris was able to get both a growing and processing permit - something that has only been granted to seven other businesses to do both. From there, Empire Hemp Co was born.
In the beginning
The first setup was minimalist with the opening crop being planted right on Chris’s property at the bike shop. Whilst these plants took root, they purchased hemp from Colorado to commence the production process (also set up at the property) ahead of their first harvest
“In the early days how we made the products is much different from how we do it today and it was a very different product. There was a lot of trial and error with the recipes and then having our friends and family try them to get the feedback and make sure we were going in the right direction. From this we got affirmations from people all the time saying they cant believe how well it works and confirmation it has this healing and pain relieving ability.”
After a series of aligned connections with old friends, contacts and an injection of funding, in 2019 it was time for Empire Hemp Co to evolve into its next phase. “Investment enabled us to move into a new facility in Batavia NY, buy a CO2 extractor and other equipment and make it GMP compliant. After we got the CO2 extractor, the products changed and we developed and reformulated everything.Everything fell into place exactly the way we needed. We found the right location at the right time. It just worked out really really well”
How it works
A typical day for Chris and Shelley at Empire hemp Co involves running the extractor each day, making products and fulfilling orders. The team also have a network of retailers and partners stocking the range as well as fulfilling wholesale orders.
As well as the production process, Chris works closely with the hemp growers to ensure each crop fulfils the goal of providing ‘the craft beer of CBD’ to his customers. “We work with local growers and have several growers harvesting specific cannabinoid oil strains for us so we have that consistency in our product. We’ve developed those strains over the years and have two more strains growing currently that we’re going to make different products for tailored functions including specifically for sleep.”
The full spectrum process itself is aligned with the value of creating a product that captures the purest essence of the hemp plant. “With our equipment and our extractor we can leave behind all the waxes and lipids and fats and chlorophyll - those undesirable components of the plant material and just capture all the good stuff. We can use it right away without having to further distill or winterize the extract making the quality of the oil far greater than ethanol extraction or other Co2 extractors.” said Chris.
“We call it a full spectrum because we don’t manipulate it. We don’t pull it apart and put it back together - we do one extraction and that comes right from the plant straight to the MCT oil with the tinctures - that’s it just two ingredients so it’s the purest you’ll ever get. When you taste it you can really taste the flower - it doesn’t have that nasty plant-like taste which comes when you have a lot of extractions and a little bit of the chlorophyll just gets in there.”
“I want to give people the purest essence of the flower that we can. When you smell a live growing hemp plant it just overwhelms your senses, it’s an amazing thing so to capture that and stick it in a bottle is really tough”
With the hemp industry still being relatively young commercially, there are a lot of questions and confusion around the difference between cannabis and hemp products. Chris recalls: “It was really interesting, in the last 2-3 years, people’s knowledge of the difference between hemp and marijuana has increased greatly. In the beginning, I’d sometimes have people come in and walk straight back out the door because they thought I had drugs in here which was bad. I lost a couple of customers that way but gained a lot of customers because the word started to get around that I had a permit and was starting to do it so people were curious.”
The future of Empire Hemp Co.
“From the beginning we really focused on being more of a craft brand. I think as consumers become more and more educated and try different products they see the value in the quality of the product and the production process.”
Building relationships with partners who believe in the power of CBD is also a top priority for the business growth including working with health practitioners to bring the power of CBD to those who will benefit from its healing power. “Where we pride ourselves is on the quality of the oil and as we move forward in this industry, people are going to seek out the quality and we’re affordable quality.”
Outside of Empire Hemp Co.
Outside of Empire Hemp Co, and where the business began, Chris’s passion is bikes. “Biking has been my passion since i was about six years old. That’s what I've done most of my adult life. I worked for a bicycle touring company where I was a guide in Europe - Greece, France and Germany which I did for a bunch of years in my 20s and 30s. I like being outdoors, hiking and exposing myself to new challenges and experiences.”
Chris is also the father of 3 three teenagers and, with partner of 6 years Shelley, balance family and business life together.
If you’d like to know more about Chris, the history of Empire Hemp Co - contact us.